Thursday, August 16, 2012

A conversation with Edmond Hoyle

A friend of mine asked me, "If you had a time machine, what would you say to Mr. Hoyle?" I replied:
If I were to tell something to Mr. Hoyle it would be that his name would be immortalized in the phrase "according to Hoyle" and would be recognizable by most people in the English-speaking world more than three centuries after his birth. What would I ask Mr. Hoyle? That question has been running through my head since I saw your post. I decided it's worth a full blog post which I will get to in the next few weeks.
 Here are my top five questions:

(1) What did you do before publishing A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist?

Hoyle was born in 1672 and published his first book in 1742 at the age of 69 or 70. There is absolutely no evidence about any aspect of his life before that time, other than a hint about the prior year in the heading to chapter 14:

Some purchasers of the treatise in manuscript, disposed of the last winter, having desired a further explanation concerning the playing of sequences, they are explained in the following manner.
Hoyle presumably sold the manuscript, no copies of which survive, to his private whist pupils.

Where was Hoyle born and what were his circumstances? His writing reflects education—where did he acquire it? Did he have a trade or profession? Where did he learn to play the games? Was he a professional gamester? Where did he play? What was his income? In short, what did Hoyle do for the first 70 years of his life????

In the decade and a half before 1742, whist became fashionable in high society. Was Hoyle involved in the elevation of whist, perhaps a member of Lord Folkestone's circle? 

Lord Folkestone should ever be held in high esteem by whist-players for his services in taking up and developing the game, which at that time was just emerging from obscurity and from its very humbles surroundings. He formed one of a select circle at the Crown Coffee-House, in Bedford Row, London, and here is where scientific whist had its first beginning in 1728; for these gentlemen, under his leadership devised a code of regulations and otherwise greatly improved the game...Thus the game was made ready for Hoyle to take it up and bring it into great popularity. (Butler, p180)
(2) Who were your pupils? How did your lessons differ form the text of your writings?

There are some letters to magazines purporting to be from students of Hoyle, as I discuss in the essay "Contemporary References to Hoyle," but their apparent satire casts doubt on their accuracy.

Did Hoyle play whist with his students, critiquing their play? Did he present prepared hands to them, much like the cases in his treatise? How free was Hoyle to criticize his society pupils? Did he socialize with his students? 

How strong a player was Hoyle at the games he discussed? Recall the disparaging quote from Matthews in 1804 at the end of an essay on Hoyle collectibles? 

How would Hoyle have adapted to the changes in whist and its evolution to bridge? To the changes in backgammon with the invention of the doubling cube in the 1930s?

(3)  What were your contractual relationships with your publishers?

We know that Hoyle self-published the first edition of Whist, recording it at Stationer's Hall on November 11,1 742. He sold the copyright to Francis Cogan for 100 Guineas in February 1743, a great transaction for Hoyle, and a disastrous one for Cogan. To combat the piracies, we know that Hoyle continued to make addition to Whist and that he signed every genuine copy. We don't know what payment he received for the additions, but March 1743, Cogan agreed to pay Hoyle two pence per copy for the autograph. The story is recounted in the article "Pirates, Autographs, and a Bankruptcy."

Hoyle wrote later treatises for Cogan: Backgammon, An Artificial Memory for Whist, Piquet, and Quadrille. Backgammon was entered at Stationer's Hall in on June 28, 1743 and Piquet on January 11, 1744 in the names of both Hoyle and Cogan. Neither Memory nor Quadrille were recorded there. What were the terms by which those books were published?

Hoyle wrote and John Jolliffe published two more treatises—on brag (1751) and the doctrine of chances (1754). They were sold by subscription. What were the terms of the contract for those books? 

Thomas Osborne, Jr. acquired the rights to Hoyle in 1745, just before the first of Cogan's two bankruptcies. We know that Osborne made a one-time payment to Hoyle of 25 pounds in lieu of continuing paying two pence per signature. Osborne later acquired the rights to the doctrine of chances (though not brag) and published Hoyle's work on Chess in 1761. What were the terms for those books?

(4) What was your reaction to the satiric play The Humours of Whist?

I discuss the play in two essays, one discussing the play as a satire of Hoyle and another as a satire of piracy. Did he find the play amusing? Did it increase his notoriety and the sales of his books? 

(5) Why oh why oh why did you not distinguish between strategy and partnership agreement in the game of whist?

Granted, this is an unfair criticism to lay at Hoyle's feet. I explain the distinction between these two aspects of playing at whist in part 2 of my essay on "The Nature of Gaming Literature." In Hoyle's time and for a hundred years after, there was no sense that different partnerships might choose to have different agreements. For example, do you lead the K or Q from a suit headed by both? The trick-taking power is equivalent—the question is one of information. Does the lead of the K promise the Q or deny it? Modern bridge partnership are split on this and hundreds of similar questions. Each partnerships must choose among approaches. 

The failure to distinguish between strategy, partnership agreement, and the rules of the game persists in bridge books to this day. Indeed, it is worse, as the two concepts extend to bidding—something that does not take place in bridge. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I claim that hundreds of millions of bridge players have been worse off for not appreciating the distinction. Hoyle could have made things so much better. 

An opportunity missed....

Do you have any questions for Mr. Hoyle?


William Mill Butler, The Whist Reference Book. Philadelphia: John C. Yorston. 1899.

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